Many will look back on our National League days as times to forget, all bar the final season. I can understand that, but it would do a disservice to some very good players that passed through our club, and the occasional moment to savour as well. After all, who could forget that 4-3 win at Hyde, with a last-minute winner by Tom Miller?
Whilst it is easy to be dismissive of those years, we must not forget the good times we did have, no matter how few and far between they were. David Holdsworth takes an awful lot of stick for his player recruitment policy, but he brought some very good players to the club. He brought some very bad ones too, but remember he first signed Paul Farman on loan and latterly permanently. He also brought in Tom Miller.
Miller was playing for Newport County having joined from Dundalk at the beginning of 2011/12. Once Steve Tilson was dismissed, Holdsworth came in and set about trying to keep us in the National League. It wasn’t an immediate success, but with a limited budget he did his best. I’m not one who feels Holdsworth was terrible, he inherited a club with no budget and no confidence. Paul Farman joined around Christmas 2011, and one of his earliest matches was against Tom Miller’s Newport. We lost 1-0 as relegation loomed, and before long Farman went back to Gateshead.
Holdsworth had clearly seen something he liked in Miller. It might have been the gigantic throw he had, meaning anything in line with the 18-yard area was as good as a corner. Certainly when he first joined that was the element to his repertoire that fans first noted
I think David Holdsworth saw more in young Tom though. After coming through the ranks at Norwich City he earned himself a move to Glasgow rangers, but injury robbed him of a chance to make an impression. He wound up in the Blue Square Premier desperately looking for a route back. After thirty-odd outings for Newport he was on the move, and he arrived at a club in turmoil. The Imps, it is fair to say, were on their arse. Knocked out of the FA Trophy in humiliating fashion by Carshalton, in danger of back to back relegations and now a playing squad cobbled together as best as we could manage.
Miller’s City debut came on March 24th, 2012. It was a significant date as a protest took place outside the dressing room area. Fans clamoured for the dismissal of ‘Reg’, the removal of the board, anything they felt was dragging their club down. The atmosphere was vitriolic, hateful and unsettling.
The opponents were ironically Newport County, the side that had already beaten us 1-0 a couple of months before. Miller started the game alongside such illustrious names as Peter Bore, Mark McCammon, Jake Sheridan and Jefferson Louis. It is fair to say his debut came at an ultimate low for the club, separated from the fan base, struggling to buy a goal and falling towards a trapdoor we would struggle to recover from.
Miller didn’t score, but John Nutter and Mark McCammon did as we won 2-0. Miller played in the centre of defence with Nutter and right-back and Paul Robson on the left, and for once we looked balanced. Before that game we’d lost three on the bounce, including a terrible 2-1 defeat at Bath City. We had kept just two clean sheets in 13 games, one of which came against Carshalton. It wasn’t a classic side and it wasn’t easy for a player to stand out, but Miller did help steady the defence. He was mainly noticed for his long throw, but also for the way he handled himself against his former team mates.
Three days later we played Hayes and Yeading, and City won again making survival a real possibility. Jefferson Louis gave us a 1-0 lead on 68 minutes before Pele of all people drew Hayes level. We were in the relegation battle with them and a win would be beyond crucial. Just three minutes after the equaliser, Tom Miller grabbed the winning goal. Two victories from two outings, and City were on the road to recovery.
Those two wins were pivotal in the history of the Imps. Had we lost those games relegation would have been highly likely, and from there we would have struggled to come back. David Holdsworth lost his job the following season, and Gary Simpson came in. He started to put together a squad of players we actually owned, restoring the team togetherness. I firmly believe those few days in March 2012 were the turning point, albeit a long and slow turning point, and Tom Miller played a crucial role in that.
For the next three seasons Tom Miller grew from an unfamiliar face from the reign of ‘Reg’, to the first name on the team sheet. He occasionally shifted to full back the following season, and showed he had so much more than just a long throw. He was alert and had pace, he could get up and down the line and he added some balance to a back four notorious for being really bad. It wasn’t all roses and ice cream though, the 4-1 Boxing Day defeat at home to Grimsby was embarrassing for all involved, including Miller. He was a good player in a bad team, and fans feared he might leave for pastures new. He didn’t, Gary Simpson saw him as an integral part of the team, and he signed a new deal after we avoided relegation for a second time.
Gary Simpson deployed him at right back permanently, and with Sean Newton on the other defensive flank we had perhaps the best pairing since Bimson and Bailey. Sean Newton isn’t remembered fondly now, but the ‘side that Gary built’ had the potential to do so much more than they did. With Andrew Boyce and Nat Brown in the centre, the defence had balance, experience and energy. Tom got the odd goal, he grabbed our first in a 2-2 draw at Nuneaton having scored the winner against Southport at Sincil Bank a couple of weeks earlier. As he got more games under his belt he looked increasingly like he’d go on to better things.
He even grabbed three in five games in February 2014 as his reputation grew, but come 2014/15 he was back in a City shirt. By now it was apparent to everyone at the club that his future lay in the Football League, and given the level of investment in the summer it was hoped that could be with City. That team of Simmo’s should have done so much better, but a 3-3 draw at Forest Green brought his spell as manager to an end. Tom kept his place as Chris Moyses took the helm, scoring on consecutive Saturdays to give us 1-0 wins against Dartford and Southport. By now he look an assured and competent footballer, the sort of player that effortlessly steps up from the National League into the Football League. As our own promotion hopes faded, fans were resigned to losing the popular defender.
On 25th April 2015 he made his final appearance for City in a 0-0 draw with Dartford, that summer he agreed a move to Carlisle, a move nobody begrudged the player. He had been a mainstay of our team for three seasons, a player who always gave everything he had for the shirt. Had he stayed he would have been mentioned in the same breath as Paul Farman and Alan Power when we discussed our non-league legends, but instead he moved onwards an upwards. He was replaced by Bradley Wood, another firm fans favourite.
His 12th appearance at Carlisle brought him the biggest match of his career, a 1-1 draw at Liverpool in the League Cup. Last season he helped to guide Carlisle to the play-off semi-finals where they were beaten by Exeter City, meaning he’ll line up for the Cumbrian side this season against Lincoln. To date he’s played eighty-odd games for them, and he’s regarded as a permanent fixture in their side.
He’ll get a warm welcome at Lincoln, there is no doubt about that. He was one of those players that endeared himself to fans with committed displays, a player always willing to engage with them on social media or at the ground, and someone who earned a lot of respect from his team mates as well. Since he left we’ve had the best two seasons since we dropped out of the league, Chris Moyses put the foundations in place for Danny and Nicky to build on and deliver us back where we belong. However, we must not forget the defender that David Holdsworth brought in to launch those big throws into the box, the guy who steadied the defence for a crucial 2-0 win and then bagged the winner days later that arguably could have saved our football club.
(Apologies for the quality of the shots in this article, I took them on my old camera from the stands before I had all the gear and no idea)